Muslim model Halima Aden is stepping back from fashion and quitting runway shows entirely after feeling pressured to compromise her religious beliefs, she announced Wednesday.
Aden, the first model to wear a hijab and burkini in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, posted a series of Instagram Stories describing the difficulties she has faced in the “toxic mess called fashion.”
In the posts, she recounted skipping prayers, wearing clothes she wasn’t comfortable in and styling her hijab in ways she felt betrayed her values.
“They could call me tomorrow and not even for $10 million would I ever risk compromising my hijab ever again,” she wrote.
Aden also pledged to never take part in runway shows or travel for fashion months again, adding that “that’s where all the bad energy came from.”
Aden, who lived in a Kenyan refugee camp before moving to the United States, has broken numerous boundaries in her modeling career.
She was the first hijab-wearing woman to appear on the cover of British Vogue and was part of Vogue Arabia’s first group hijabi cover.
But her work, and the excitement of being labeled a trailblazer, caused her to lose sight of her beliefs, she said. Aden’s mother had long encouraged her to walk away — but it wasn’t until the Covid-19 pandemic, which prompted the model to stay home and take a break from the industry, that she “finally realized where I went wrong,” she wrote.
Among the campaigns she expressed regret over was a photo shoot for American Eagle’s first-ever denim hijab.
“Why did I allow them to put jeans on my head when at the time I had only ever worn skirts and long dresses?” she wrote, explaining that “I was just so desperate back then for any ‘representation’ that I lost touch with who I was.”
Aden also posted an image from a photo shoot for Glamour magazine in 2017 showing her with a green wrap under her hijab and feathers around her neck. “I went back to my hotel room and just sobbed after this shoot because deep down I knew this wasn’t it. But was too scared to speak up,” she wrote. “Also very common struggle when you are the FIRST to do something.”
American Eagle and Glamour did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.
She also pointed to numerous other photo shoots where, though her head was covered, the scarf didn’t cover her chest or was styled in a way that hid it from view. These photo shoots were “essentially erasing my hijab completely,” she said.
‘Come correct or don’t come at all’
Despite her regrets, Aden pointed to a number of photo shoots that she felt were carried out respectfully, like the Vogue Arabia cover shot alongside two other black hijab-wearing models, Ikram Abdi Omar and Amina Adan.
And she isn’t walking away from fashion entirely, she said, but rather laying out conditions for those hoping to hire her.
“If my hijab can’t be this visible — I’m not showing up,” she wrote under a photo of her in a full unadorned hijab that covered her chest and shoulders.
Under another photo, showing her full hijab, scarf and covered chest and shoulders, she wrote, “This is the standard moving forward if you want to work with me. Come correct or don’t come at all. Nothing less, nothing more.”
“These spaces were always predominantly white,” she added.
“So you are already at a disadvantage for simply being YOU in a workplace that never considered someone of your background. We can’t give up, but it’s good to remain mindful.”
Her announcement was met with support and praise from celebrities including Rihanna and Gigi Hadid.
“Proud of you for staying true to your integrity,” supermodel Naomi Campbell wrote under Aden’s most recent Instagram post. “You are true light and joy since knowing you. And I hope our paths will cross in another capacity, keep rising and shining.”
Aden, who is Somali-American, was born and raised in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp, before moving with her family to the US in 2004 at the age of 7. After a decade-long vetting process, her family resettled in St. Louis, Missouri.
Until her family made its way to St. Cloud, Minnesota, Aden said she had difficulty adjusting to her new life in the US and longed for her home in Kakuma.
However, her life changed in 2016 when she became the first contestant to wear a hijab and a burkini at the Miss Minnesota USA pageant. Aden went on to reach the semi-finals of the competition.
“There are so many Muslim women that feel like they don’t fit society’s standard of beauty,” she told CNN in 2018.
“I just wanted to tell them it’s OK to be different, being different is beautiful, too.”
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